RICHARD Brautigan's stories wear thin after a while. His strength is his originality, but after 13 years the inversions and unlikely extended metaphors that caught our attention in Trout Fishing in America have lost their force. Maybe our attention was more easily caught in the 1960s.
Although I was delighted by Brautigan in the late '60s, I stopped keeping up with his books after The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 , which came out in 1971. It was clear in that book that he was honing the edge of his writing, doing more extended and less diffuse work, turning his particular genius to more ambitious things. The gentile, comic writer of Trout Fishing and of that archetypal flower child's psychodrama, In Watermelon Sugar , was starting to create real characters and give them enough room to grow and change in the course of a story. In the succeeding years (while I wasn't paying attention) he wrote an erratic series of books, each one seeming to take up a single theme. The most sustained work is The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, with what for Brautigan is an elaborate plot, although its main characters come in pairs that are almost undistinguishable. The least successful of these later books is Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery, an examination of violence and arbitrary pain that reveals nothing.
Brautigan's new book, The Tokoyo-Montana Express, is in the same mold as Trout Fishing in America . It consists of short, unrelated pieces, many of them less than a page long, which are little more than anecdotes and musings. This time he gives his title metaphor a break: although most of the pieces are set in either Japan or Montana, he does not belabor the connecting image. There's a focus now on aging that wasn't in Trout Fishing, and occasionally the daydreams are nasty. Most of the pieces are first-person, and they are all told from what seems to be a consistent point of view. In a prefatory remark, Brautigan says, "The 'I' in this book is the voice of the stations along the tracks of the Tokyo-Montana Express," but the narrator is a character who may or may not resemble the real-life author but certainly gives the illusion of doing so. He resembles earlier Brautigan narrators, especially in Sombrero Fallout. This narrator seems to live part of the time in a small town in Montana and spends a long while in Japan, and at some point he has a Japanese wife. (She has no name; she is simply "my wife" or "my Japanese wife.") The book seems to be the sum of the narrator's idle thoughts over a period of several months.
Most of those thoughts are inconclusive. The anecdotal pieces are best when they give some human insight; they are mildly amusing when the metaphor is funny or particularly well woven into the narrative; and the rest of the time they are dull. The stories with the most character are the longer ones: "Shrine of Carp" and "The Irrevocable Sadness of Her Thank You" are tiny moments of life in Japan that illumiante the people described, both narrator and object. The most memorable story is "The Menu/1965," which centers on one week's menu for the condemned men on Death Row in San Quentin, and the impact that menu has on the people the narrator shows it to. The menu (which features quite elaborate meals) also has its impact on the reader, to complement the story of other people's reactions. But too many of the pieces are like "Marching in the Opposite Direction of a Pizza," in which the narrator sees the Japanese workers at a Shakey's Pizza Parlor in Tokyo leaving work: in another book, this might be a hook to hang either an irony or an amusing comment on, but in Brautigan's book this must stand alone. i
Brautigan has kept his talent for turning phrases in unexpected ways. His prose can be evocative for a sentence or so -- waking from nightmares, "my eyes tunnelled out of sleep at dawn" -- but rarely, in this book, for more than a paragraph. He has a roving attention span, which fastens on a tiny object or a train of thought and examines it briefly, in very close focus, then drops it and passes on. It is the peculiar juxtaposition that interests him. In "Dancing Feet" he says, "In conventional storytelling this would be a good time to say some things about the life of the businessman: Maybe his age, country, background, family, does he masturbate? is he impotent? etc., but I won't becasue it's not important." Brautigan spends most of his time describing things, and it is his unusual descriptions that catch our attention. But the interest lasts only as long as his descriptions stay fresh; after that, we look behind them for something more permanent. In The Tokyo-Montana Express the descriptions wilt after a while, and there is nothing behind them.